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How to Write a Science Research Question

Humans are a very curious species. We are always asking questions. But the way we formulate a question is very important when we think about science and research. Here we’ll lay out how to form a science research question and the concepts needed to formulate a good research question. Luckily, we’ve got some handy visuals to help you along.

In order to inquire about the world, produce new information, and solve a mystery of about the natural world, we always use the scientific process to inform research questions. So, we need to keep in mind the steps of the scientific process:

  • Observation

  • Hypothesis

  • Data to be obtained

  • Ways to analyze data

  • Conclusions to obtain from the question

First, clearly define your population and your variables.

Now, what is a population? Defined in ecologic terms, a population are all the individuals of one species in a given area (e.g. population of deer, leatherback turtles, spruce trees, mushrooms, etc.).

Now, what is a variable? A variable is any factor, trait, or condition that can exist in differing amounts or types (e.g. length, quantity, temperature, speed, mass, distance, depth, etc.).

So, using different combinations of these two components, we can create three different types of research questions: descriptive, comparative, and correlative. These three types also match three of the modern research methodologies. 

Descriptive field investigations involve describing and/or quantifying parts of a natural system. Includes generally 1 population and one distinctive variable (figure 1). Examples of descriptive research questions:

  • How many pine trees are in the Mammoth Hot Springs area?

  • What is the wolf pack’s distribution range?

  • How frequently do humpback whales breed?    

Comparative field investigations involve collecting data on different populations/organisms, or under different conditions (e.g., times of year, locations), to make a comparison. Includes two or more populations and one distinctive variable (figure 2). Examples of comparative research questions:

  • Is there a difference in body length between male and female tortoises?

  • Is there a difference in diversity of fungi that live in the forest compared with non-forested areas?  

Correlative field investigations involve measuring or observing two variables and searching for a relationship between them for a distinctive population (figure 3). Examples of correlative research questions:

  • What is the relationship between length of the tail and age in humpback whales?

  • How does a spider’s reproduction rate change with a change in season?

To practice how to write a research question, we suggest the following steps:

  1. Find a nice place where you can be alone and connected with nature. Bring nothing else but a journal and a pencil. Take a few moments to breath and observe everything that surrounds you. Use all of your senses to obtain information from your surroundings: smell the flowers around you, feel the leaves, hear the birds, and recognize all the life.

  2. Choose a population that is around you and that interests you (flowers, trees, insects, rocks), and think about what would you like to know about that population. Write down what you want to study from that population (your variable). It is easier to choose the population first and the variables second. Think about a feasible and simple measurement. One easy measurement is counting, since it doesn’t require an instrument.

  3. Write down your question using your population and variable. Remember to write a question that is going to be simple, measurable, attainable, relevant, and limited to a particular time and place. Avoid why questions.

  4. Next, write a prediction that answers your question. This is your hypothesis.

  5. Now that you have a defined population, measure your variable, and obtain data. Don’t forget to write it down in your journal.

  6. Finally, compare your hypothesis with your actual data and write a conclusion about your findings.

These simple and fun steps will help you create great questions that will lead you to find interesting answers and discoveries. But remember, this process not only works for scientific questions but also for daily issues, such as why the car stopped working. You can use it to investigate local environmental problems and provide possible solutions for the benefit of your community and future generations.

You can find more information about this topic in: Ryken, A. E., Otto, P., Pritchard, K., & Owens, K. (2007). Field investigations: Using outdoor environments to foster student learning of scientific processes. Pacific Education Institute. 

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